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Evergreen State allegedly considers moderating ‘toxic’ email discussions

Is that even legal for a public college?

The president of Evergreen State College recently asked employees to halt their “email exchanges which expose every staff and faculty member to toxic expressions of personal opinion,” and instead “listen to each other in new ways” when they disagree.

One option that is allegedly being discussed to accomplish this: administrative oversight of the email distribution lists for faculty and staff.

It’s not clear how far along these discussions went, or whether such a policy would ever be implemented. They allegedly took place at last week’s academic retreat, according to
an Evergreen employee who learned about discussions from a superior.

Discussions would have shortly preceded the college’s announced $500,000 settlement with Bret Weinstein (below) and Heather Heying, under which the married biology professors agreed to end their tort claim against the school and leave.

Heated language about Weinstein’s protest against the school’s anti-white “Day of Absence,” and his subsequent harassment by students and faculty, has filled the emails, some of which The College Fix has reviewed.

But an Evergreen student who has engaged in similar heated debates on a campus email list told The Fix that he’s skeptical such a policy would actually be implemented, citing legal reasons.

The administration has not answered repeated emails and phone calls from The Fix this week to shed light on what has been discussed.

Such email monitoring has provoked outrage when discovered at other institutions. In a bid to stop leaks, Harvard University administrators secretly searched the email accounts of resident deans in 2012 – a disclosure that led the private institution to adopt a more protective electronic-search policy.

MORE: Evergreen settles claim with embattled professors for $500,000

‘Monitored and moderated for content’

The Evergreen employee told The Fix that emails sent on “designated lists” were the focus of discussions. Those include lists where all messages are delivered to a large group of people, such as all faculty, rather than person-to-person messages.

“As soon as I heard [from a superior], All Staff and Faculty emails distribution lists will be monitored and moderated for content, I thought, they’re squelching opposing views and dissent,” the employee wrote in an email: “Welcome to the left that’s the new right.”

The employee, who did not cite any written evidence of this proposal, told The Fix in a phone interview such a system would let administrators moderate messages that crossed a line in their subjective judgment.

“Here they talk ad nauseam about everything being transparent, and of course it is not. Now it is getting even less transparent,” the employee said.

Monitoring and moderating the email distribution lists may actually be a compromise proposal: President George Bridges has previously wanted to shut down the listserv entirely, according to a source familiar with his thinking.

MORE: I attend Evergreen State College. It’s not racist. But it is delusional.

Evergreen student Steve Coffman (left), who filed a formal complaint with the school alleging “racially driven violence and harassment” by peers of color, doesn’t think a monitoring system will be implemented.

“I’m not sure they could actually legally moderate stuff sent via the campus network, since it is [Washington] state property, and we have robust free speech protection in this state,” he told The Fix in an email.

Coffman challenged the moderators of Evergreen’s internal message board when they asked him to “tone down” his more “caustic and heated” posts, reminding them “they lacked a legal leg to stand on … They backed down.”

As for discussions at the retreat, “I’m sure there is a desire to only have correct ideas bandied about online, but sucks to be them using state and federal money,” Coffman said. (The student also wrote a guest column for The Fix claiming Evergreen is “so not racist” and makes “Bernie Sanders look moderate.”)

‘Rewarded for being whiny little shits’

President Bridges’ Sept. 18 email to faculty and staff, provided to The Fix by multiple sources, aims to create a cohesive environment after this spring’s controversy with Weinstein, which has taken a toll on the Washington state institution’s finances and enrollment.

“Many of us are experiencing a range of emotions: grief, disappointment, anger, fear, and so much more,” he wrote:

These feelings come from the senseless and unfounded attacks our community and some individuals experienced from extremists on social media who knew nothing about Evergreen or the people here who dedicate themselves to our students. I also know and lament the unease and trepidation experienced after the spring, some of which stems from student protests, but more of which was caused by external threats of violence to our campus. Finally, many have profound anger over the public misrepresentations of our college and work on equity and inclusion.

First promising to “communicate with you more promptly and effectively,” Bridges then denounced the “dismissive critiques of others” and “dehumanizing messages that have little or nothing to do with the actual business of the college” that had started to saturate online discussions among Evergreen faculty and staff.

“At the same time, we need open dialogue and debate about issues and matters of critical importance,” the president continued. “No one should fear repudiation or dismissal for expressing perspectives contrary to the views of others.”

Bridges then touted the college’s “best year ever in fundraising” and “strong new content” designed to draw in prospective students.

One of the more “toxic” conversations actually took place on the public Facebook page of Zoltan Grossman, a professor of geography at Evergreen, right after the settlement was announced.

“The couple [Weinstein and Heying] that is the very definition of white fragility rewarded for being whiny little shits,” wrote Laura Grabhorn, assistant director of the school’s Longhouse Education and Cultural Center, in a comment.

MORE: Evergreen pledges to train students not to discriminate against whites

“It irks me completely that these fuckwads got a goddamned penny,” she continued. Those two comments drew 67 “likes.” Grabhorn continued commenting throughout the Facebook post.

Grace Huerta, professor of educational policy studies, alleged Weinstein got his job “as a de facto dual career accommodation,” apparently meaning he only got hired because Evergreen was recruiting his wife.

Other commenters said the school was smart to save itself time and money by settling.

Come for our ‘beach, organic farm and thousand-acre forest’

The president isn’t the only community member at Evergreen worried about the tenor of discussions.

Before Bridges’ email to faculty and staff but after the academic retreat and settlement announcement, another biology professor who has publicly defended Weinstein and called Bridges an “absolute coward” gave his two cents in a listserv email.

“Here is something that I value: being a part of an institution that celebrates transparency, discourse, and self-criticism,” wrote Mike Paros, a 10-year veteran of the school, in a Sept. 17 message:

This means that a member of the Evergreen community should feel free to express a viewpoint, despite it being unpopular with the faculty majority. In the past, I have done this privately and by email in a respectful and civil manner.

What happened to Bret and Heather is disgraceful. Even to the very end, they remained positive about Evergreen to the media, hopeful that it could grow into a more inclusive place.

Apparently alluding to an earlier message, Paros said he was told “if I am critical of a PUBLIC institution in a way that can be accessed by the PUBLIC, it will harm the college’s efforts to regain losses in student recruitment and may be “bad for morale’.”

He mocked the administration for buying a sponsored article in San Francisco Weekly Sept. 11 that touts the school’s “beach, organic farm and thousand-acre forest.”

MORE: Evergreen vigilantes attack student who chalks ‘apolitical’ messages

Paros warned that the college may be viewed as “hiding something” if the public and potential students don’t see “diverse viewpoints and discussion” among faculty, and foreshadowed that he may be forced out of Evergreen next.

He can’t join in the “unified front that admits no fault by condemning Weinstein and Heying as bigoted promoters of the alt-right,” Paros wrote, and he won’t stay silent as colleagues are run out simply for “asking for more discussion” on controversial initiatives. (Weinstein and Heying were vocal critics of proposed “race-based equity plans.”)

Evergreen’s lack of transparency reminded Paros of a different administration:

Imagine a government administration that discourages any questioning of “official” policy, is unable to accept criticism, is intellectually dishonest, attempts to cover-up scandals, and tells employees to not communicate in a public way because “fake news” can be created. Sound familiar?

‘Morale on campus must be at an all-time low’

Another professor responded to the settlement announcement by criticizing the “scorched earth style of leadership” by the administration.

In an email obtained by The Fix, the professor called Heying and Weinstein “dedicated faculty” and said their departure might have been avoided with “more of a human touch”:

The right wing ‘news’ machinery is going to have a field day with this [settlement], and the fallout during orientation week and start of the quarter could be horrific for the college. …

MORE: Lawmakers sponsor bills to turn Evergreen into private college

Morale on campus must be at an all-time low. For many of us, this decision has driven morale even lower, and I can’t help but think that there was an easier path to follow.

Grossman, the professor of geography, is encouraging Evergreen colleagues to create a positive image of the school in the media.

In an email obtained by The Fix that followed the settlement announcement, Grossman gave colleagues an update on “the on-going campaign against Evergreen” by Weinstein, his backers and the media at large. (Below, Evergreen student vigilantes armed with bats and batons)

Now let’s move on,” he wrote. “Our campus situation was never just about one person. Let’s deal this year with equity and diversity reforms as if obstacles and diversions had not been put in their way”:

By speaking out publicly to emphasize the positive history of Evergreen, and how increased diversity and equity can make it a more welcoming place, we can not only overcome the challenges of the past year. We can also increase our safety in numbers, and enable people who have been silenced by fear to become part of our learning community. We can show how respecting people’s identity differences does not have to contradict the unifying similarities that bring us together—we can creatively do both.

Responding to Grossman’s pep-talk email, the Evergreen employee called it a “cleanup email” that showed the administration is “silencing people who don’t agree with them.” (Grossman is not a member of the administration.)

“It is part up the cleaning up and rebranding of everything being great,” the employee continued over the phone. “Meanwhile, the opposite has happened.”

As of mid-August, 212 fewer students were registered to attend Evergreen than a year ago, for a total of 3,670 students.

MORE: Evergreen official asks student vigilantes to put down their weapons

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